"In Turnabout, Iran Releases U.S. Journalist
TEHRAN — An Iranian-American journalist sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of spying for the United States was released Monday, a legal turnabout that removes an obstacle to President Obama’s opening to Iran but illustrates the volatility of the Iranian government.
The journalist, Roxana Saberi, had been in jail since January, yet an appeals court rejected the sentence, a month after Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote a letter urging the court to be fair in its review.
American officials said Iran’s handling of the Saberi case underlined a deepening divide within its leadership about how to respond to President Obama’s recent overtures. It also reflects domestic politics a month before Mr. Ahmadinejad faces a critical election, according to analysts.
“Those who are trying to engage the U.S. won out,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “There wasn’t going to be any major new administration initiative toward Iran without this case resolved.”
Ms. Saberi, 32, who has lived in Iran since 2003 and worked as a freelance reporter for National Public Radio and the BBC, was reunited with her parents and will return to the United States in the coming days, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Washington. She had originally been arrested for buying a bottle of wine, which is illegal in Iran. The charges were later elevated to working without a press credential and espionage.
“We continue to take issue with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released,” said Mrs. Clinton, who had called for the release.
Ms. Saberi’s father, Reza Saberi, who lives in Fargo, N.D., but was born in Iran, told reporters outside his family home here that his daughter was “exhausted but in good condition.” Ms. Saberi did not talk to reporters after leaving Evin prison, which is known for housing political prisoners. She had gone on a hunger strike while in jail, but ended it after two weeks because of health problems.
American officials and outside analysts believe Ms. Saberi’s arrest was politically motivated, at a time when the Obama administration is reaching out to Iran after nearly three decades of hostility. The Iranian government, some analysts said, sought to use the arrest of a journalist to gain leverage in talks with the United States over its nuclear program and other matters.
But with Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton both taking up Ms. Saberi’s cause, analysts said, the political cost of keeping her in prison may have come to seem too high. The fact that the severity of the charges against her was changed, officials said, illustrated the internal tug-of-war over the case.
“They understood that this wouldn’t help them,” said Thomas R. Pickering, a former undersecretary of state who has conducted informal talks with Iranians. “They were asking the U.S. to put words into action, and at the same time, they were going in the opposite direction.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad is seeking re-election on June 12. The letter he sent to the court was the first time he had intervened in a judicial case in his four years in office. Analysts said it would help his prospects if he could advance negotiations with the United States before the election.
“Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to take serious steps towards improving ties with the United States before the elections,” said Ibrahim Yazdi, a political analyst in Tehran. “If he succeeds, it would be to his interest.”
If the United States were to establish an interest section in Tehran, for example, that would allow Iranians to obtain visas to the United States, without traveling to a third country, as they have to do now.
The United States has made several gestures to Iran. Mr. Obama taped a greeting for the Iranian people on the Persian New Year and the administration announced that it would take part, along with other major powers, in face-to-face negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
The threat of a Taliban insurgency in Pakistan may create an opportunity for Tehran and Washington to find common cause, analysts said. Iran views Taliban militants on its eastern borders as a major threat and cooperated with the United States in operations in Afghanistan in 2001.
Last month, when Mrs. Clinton was at a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague, the United States handed Iranian diplomats a letter calling for the release of Ms. Saberi, along with two other Americans who are missing or detained in Iran, Robert Levinson and Esha Momeni.
The United States views the release of Ms. Saberi as a “partial response” to that letter, said a senior State Department official. But it should not be viewed as a “grand gesture of détente,” he added.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations, said the United States did not offer Iran any quid-pro-quo for the release of Ms. Saberi.
Her parents traveled to Tehran several weeks ago to lobby for her freedom. “Her release was a big surprise,” an emotional Mr. Saberi told reporters.
She was found guilty in April in a trial her father said lasted less than an hour. A lawyer for Ms. Saberi said the appeals court rejected the original jail term and handed down a two-year suspended sentence in its place. That means that she can leave Iran immediately, he said.
In their appeal, her lawyers argued that the espionage charge should be lifted because the Foreign Ministry and court had previously said that there was “no hostility between Iran and the United States.”
Some analysts warned the United States against drawing too much comfort from Iran’s decision.
“They pushed her to the verge of a nervous breakdown for a transient political purpose,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. “It shows the difficulty the Obama administration will have in negotiating with a regime that has so little value for the lives of its citizens.”